By Pierre Thomas, Jack Cloherty and Tia Brueggeman
Across the country Trayvon Martin’s death has touched a raw nerve in the African American community. It was stunning when a young, black, unarmed teenager was gunned down, having committed no crime other than walking through a gated community to get Skittles and iced tea.
Concern has spread across the country from ordinary citizens, to celebrities, even the president of the United States. President Obama said on Thursday, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Although this story has exploded onto the national scene, for women with African American sons, it is a conversation all too familiar.
“I don’t want to be like Trayvon Martin’s mom, burying my child,” said Racine Tucker-Hamilton, a suburban mom with two teenage sons.
Tucker-Hamilton and fellow suburban mom, LeGreta Dennis, told ABC News that they have given their sons specific instructions for survival even though they are honor roll students.
“Basically, once they started looking like men, which is about 14 or 15, even though they’re children, I basically told them, now you’re perceived as a black man in society,” said Dennis. “You know how they say, ‘buyers beware,’ it’s like young men beware.”
This conversation in many black households is a non-negotiable. Even a simple trip to the grocery store is not routine.
“I tell them, always you have to keep your hands out of your pocket because people perceive that as threatening or they may think that you’ve stolen something,” said Tucker-Hamilton. “And if you are in public, and the noise level starts getting a little high and a little loud, you need to tone it down.”
Both women are keenly aware of how their sons could be perceived in public, advising their children on nuanced aspects of their dress and behavior. They have to remember that some view them as “under suspicion.”
“If you walk in a building and you have your hood on from being outside, take that hood off. If you’re in a store and you buy something, always put your item, even if it’s a pack of gum, get it in a bag and get your receipt so they’ll be no issue there,” said Dennis.
The moms say to always remember to smile and don’t stand too close to people, particularly woman. They caution their sons to be aware of their behavior around police officers if they are pulled over while driving.
Dennis said, “Don’t reach for anything, roll down the window, be respectful, ask the officer if you could please call your parents. I want to be on the phone to hear the conversation.”
The teenage boys also feel the pressure.
Adam, Tucker-Hamilton’s son, said, “Sometimes when I’m riding in the Metro, I’ll walk right by somebody and they’ll kinda tighten up.”
“You do become conscious of it when you realize that employees of the store start looking at you a certain way,” said Marcus, Dennis’ 16-year-old son.
Dennis’ older son, Brandon, a 17-year-old wearing glasses and a polo shirt said, “It is frustrating. I get kinda angry, I’ve got to admit.”
The mothers’ concerns are supported by research. A Justice Department study found that black males were three to four times more likely to have police threaten or use force against them than their white counterparts.
Until something changes, Tucker-Hamilton admits, “It’s painful, but it is our reality. The bottom line is, at the end of the day, I want my sons to come home alive.”